Roon Music Player and Streaming Software
Roon is big medicine for your music collection. So big, we're going to come at it from three writer's perspectives; Jon Iverson will provide the heavy lifting as well as comparisons to Sooloos and a touchscreen implementation, I'll be talking about a few setup tips and comparisons to Audirvana+/iTunes, and Steve Plaskin will bring it on home with his take on Roon versus JRiver from a Windows perspective. Let's Roon!
Jon Iverson on Roon
There are dozens of music player and streaming applications for computers, touchpads and phones. From standalone software vendors like JRiver, VLC and Audirvana to those integrated with distribution services like Spotify, Pandora, iTunes and Tidal. Yet others, such as Sonos and Meridian's Sooloos, are integrated with the manufacturer's hardware. Every one has some kind of interface.
In the end, these applications all share a common function: helping you sort through the thousands of possible music choices and pick a tune to play right now, or set up a playlist for the next few minutes or hours. Up until now, the company that arguably (though there is no doubt in my mind) did it best with a large collection was Sooloos, which had created the most useful and intuitive music management software/hardware product that eventually became the Meridian Sooloos C15.
Into this fray steps a "new" company, Roon, with a standalone desktop and tablet app, who intends to take sorting music to the next level for both audiophiles and regular music lovers. They have also announced partnerships with several hardware manufacturers. The question is, has Roon succeeded in moving music playback software forward?
Road To Roon
I put "new" in quotes above because Roon has a pedigree going back more than a decade that began when a small group of music and tech nerds started pondering better ways to control their large digital audio collections. A couple years later Sooloos was established and their first products hit the market in 2006. In 2008 they were bought by Meridian, and several Sooloos employees remained and continued to evolve the Sooloos hardware and software as well as creating a custom music player application called HP Connected Music that Meridian licensed to Hewlett Packard.
Fast forward to the 2015 CES in Las Vegas where I first discreetly experienced the Roon application in beta form in a quiet lounge at the Mirage hotel. Michael Lavorgna had joined myself and three Roon founders, and the beta product was booted up on a laptop. It wasn’t even called Roon then, and several cringe worthy name ideas were offered up, but discretion forbids me from outing them. Well I do remember some name with "cow" in it, but in the end they went with Roon.
Michael and I were impressed with what we saw, but were sworn to secrecy until an announcement could be crafted that explained the new company's relationship with Meridian (the three were at the time recently employed by them) and a reasonably sensible release date and company name could be established.
Roon was officially announced early April of this year, released officially in mid-May, and continues to have tentacles tracing back to Meridian as well as relationships with several new hardware manufacturers including Auralic, dCS, Linn, and others to be announced.
Setting Up Roon
I received early beta copies of Roon in late March and the essential feature set was already in place. New functions have been appearing at a steady clip since then and as of this date, in mid-June 2015, the player is stable and fairly complete.
Roon is currently available for Mac OSX and Windows as a download at roonlabs.com. The company says that iOS and Android tablet apps are coming (a preview version of the Android app is out now). Roon is not free, and to get started you first need to buy a Roon membership or sign up for a 14 day free trial. Roon was playing with different pricing models when I first saw the player, but has now settled on either $119/year or a lifetime membership for $499. I was also told that there is a "Pro" home automation membership for $999 in the works.
I've seen some grumbling about requiring a credit card to start the free trial, but I think you'll easily be able to decide if you like the player within two weeks and either cancel or continue with one of the options.
And there is also some grumbling about the price, but I find it a bargain when you realize how top-notch metadata (not cheap to come by) contributes to the user experience (more about this below). Considered this way, I think a lifetime price of $499 is a sweet deal. Assuming of course, that Roon can stick around for five years or more.
I set Roon up on my MacBook, which is on a network with a NAS drive containing around four thousand albums. Once downloaded, Roon wants to know where your music is located and can source files from multiple locations. I added my 2TB NAS and the few albums I had in an iTunes directory in Roon and made the NAS a "watched" drive, so that as I added new music, Roon would continue to scan it and add the albums to my collection.
Roon allows you to set up multiple computers or endpoints (from partner manufacturers for example) for extra zones or control access, but one product must be the master license holder and be online for the "remote" computers or endpoints to work. You can mix Mac and Windows computers (I did) but make sure that whatever machine holds the license will always be running and connected or the whole thing collapses.
One implication of this is that if you like to travel with your collection, then when you leave your network, the machine that the license sits on will continue to work if you bring it with you. But the machines at home will no longer function, unless of course you purchase multiple licenses. Roon says they are thinking about how to deal with this in the future, but for now, one license, one network, works at a time.
It's All About The Metadata
To really test Roon's services, I originally exported several thousand albums from my Sooloos system to the NAS without any metadata attached except for the files being arranged in folders by artist and then by album name. When Roon started up for the first time, it scanned the files and within a few hours had my collection literally covered with photos and artist info.
And though not perfect (I have a lot of obscure music) the results were nothing short of amazing. And Roon's services continue to groom my collection, which I notice every once in a while when more albums show up with artwork and liner notes. Track level metadata is included (something missing from Sooloos) and classical tracks, though not perfect, are much improved on. I'd say Roon gets it about 90% right for my collection, and there were still some frustrations with album names (Roon promises we'll be able to edit these) and botched sets or errant tracks, especially in classical. Roon claims that this will improve as the metadata gets smarter, but considering what I threw at it, the results were very impressive.
As we'll see when we start looking at Roon's features, metadata is the very foundation of an application like this. Roon says they will continue to add new metadata sources, and that any grooming done my the user is stored in the database separately, so Roon can continually update the underlying data without interfering with user edits.
Roon states that "This is unlike anything else out there. Composers who die will show death dates, and artists will have updated photos as they age. Reviews will rewrite themselves to stay relevant over the years, as will the relationships between artists and their collaborative efforts."
A user-generated metadata service is also on the drawing board, so users can perfect the data on tap and share corrections. As I said, this is what you are paying for, and not a trivial factor in the app's price.
I could probably write several thousand words just describing how Roon works and everything it does. But since you can download it for a free trial and play around for two weeks, I'm going to hit the high points with a few selected detours.
Sometimes its a matter of taste that makes the difference. In this case, the taste of the interface designer who decides what to show you and when. They choose what typefaces and styles are chosen and how large certain elements should be, and where to place them (and when to hide them). Someone makes these decisions based on their taste, and when they get it right, everything feels effortless. And this is the first thing you notice about Roon: how good it looks, and how natural it feels.
Roon is clearly built on the user experience foundation established by Sooloos almost a decade ago, and that's a great thing. Once your files are scanned, you can organize your collection by Artists, Albums, Tracks, Composers and Works. Those last two are especially useful for classical music, where you might want to see everything by Claude Debussy or alternately, all the albums that Fritz Reiner conducted, including works by Debussy. Using Works, you can further refine by composer, composition date, period, form, etc.
It's worth noting that in Album view, you can sort the albums by Artist, Most Played, Date Added, Date (released), and Album Title. In Artist view, you see a grid of artist photos and when clicking on one, are presented with a larger image and quick bio, upcoming live shows, "Top Tracks", "Main Albums", who they are "Similar To", who they "Influenced", who they "Followed", and who they "Collaborated" or "Associated With". Links can take you to the artist website, Wikipedia entry or Facebook page. These are very powerful educational features and are arranged in a brilliant series of layers so that as you scroll down the page, you get deeper and deeper into their connections to the rest of your collection.
There are also a couple browsing modes where, instead of you picking music, Roon curates your collection into either Genres for further exploring or Discover, where it puts together an ever-changing custom "magazine" of suggestions with inviting graphics and annotations. When I got stuck for something to start my listening I found this a great place to begin.
And once you start somewhere, Roon can keep the show going until you pull the plug. "Radio" is a feature that, if on, will always try to pick up where you leave off and keep playing. If you only pick one track to get started, or twenty, Radio works like Pandora and moves you around related music with a curated stream.
There are links embedded everywhere. When you pull up an artist, there are links to members in the group who have other albums in your collection. Tracks have links to other version of those same tracks or the songwriters themselves.
For example I was listening to David Crosby, so was connected to the Byrds in a link, and when looking at one of their albums, under one of the tracks (written by Carole King) was a link to other artists who covered the same song. It just keeps going from there—you can wander your library for hours and never end up where expected.
Not surprisingly, Roon takes many of the things that Sooloos excels at and amplifies them. For example, Sooloos has a Focus feature which, once understood, is a key tool for slicing and dicing a large library into tasty ingredients and then cooking it all up into a great playlist. Roon also includes an updated version of Focus that now, in addition to sorting by various parameters, includes infographics that chart your library by date and genre.
Other stuff: You can tag anything and create your own collections, bookmark places you've visited, create playlists and explore the history of what you've played in the past. Lyrics are available if found (Roon located lyrics for about half of my tracks), and you can favorite anything you like. Most file formats and resolutions are supported including DSD.
There is simply not a lot to report here. I don't split hairs with audio players, and when properly set up on my Mac, find that most sound so close that differences are not worth sweating. It didn't use to be this way, but is now, and when I've compared JRiver, Sooloos, Audirvana, VLC, Amarra etc set up properly and using the same DAC, I'm hard pressed to find meaningful differences. For example, changing the filter setting on a DAC (when there is one) is more meaningful by comparison. JRiver or Audirvana partisans, have at it in the comments.
Nonetheless, I connected my Roon laptop to my main system via USB and using the same albums as in my Sooloos collection, listened intently but could not detect any differences in sound quality good or bad. Sooloos, via S/PDIF, does not support DSD, so was at a disadvantage here, but when comparing CD or higher resolution PCM files (up to 24/96), nothing stood out when both systems shared the same DAC. Changing the DAC changed the sound of both however, but that's a different review.
Tidal and Roon
Most readers know Tidal by now, but briefly, they provide a streaming service at CD resolution from a library of 25 million (and growing) songs for $19.99 a month. Integration with Roon is fairly seamless, though at the moment, there are some quirks and sorting omissions that should be addressed in future updates.
If you don't have a large amount of music already, Tidal can supply you with an instant and deep catalog. When setting up, you can have Tidal populate your Roon library with an "Essentials" collection of 100-200 albums for each genre you choose. You can then add more Tidal albums over time, or explore new music, and build up a great collection (as long as you continue to pay Tidal its monthly fee). If you mix Tidal albums with your own, there is a small Tidal logo by their albums to indicate which are which. Another bonus is that like Sooloos, Roon makes navigating Tidal far easier than the company's own app. So if you are already a Tidal fan, Roon will be a better way to sort and play.
So much for mousing around, I was ready to see if Roon could jump to a touchscreen, giving it a more equal footing with the Sooloos. It's been done, I was told, but official word was that it isn't fully supported yet. But I had to try, so I researched new inexpensive touchscreens until I found one from Acer that could work both with my Mac and Windows machines. I bought a 23" Acer T232HL ($300) from Amazon, though there were several others that could work. To connect it to my MacBook Pro, I also picked up an HDMI adaptor for $7.
Touchscreens require two connections from the host computer: the HDMI cable with video and a USB cable to carry the movement and click info. Though my research indicated that I'd need some touch drivers for my Mac, I hooked up the monitor to my OSX Yosemite laptop and it worked right out of the box. Well kind of. It was a little choppy and not very intuitive: tapping and dragging and basic scrolling didn't work well at all, though the cursor would follow my finger around.
This is where drivers come in. There are two commonly available right now, Touch-Base ($171) and DAWKEYS ($150 - aimed mostly at the pro-recording industry). I downloaded Touch-Base, running it in demo mode and touch started working right away with my Mac and OSX 10.10.3 Yosemite. I downloaded Roon onto Corrina's older Mac Mini and hooked the touchscreen up to it. Worked great too.
I then invited Corrina's brother, Terrence, over with his Sony laptop running Windows 7 Pro. Touchscreen drivers are built in, and once enabled, worked just like the Mac, though a little better when it comes to onscreen keyboards and more complicated clicking and scrolling. In all cases Roon suggests 8GB of RAM if you are running a big collection.
Terrence was so impressed, that he offered to take the touchscreen off my hands when I was done. He then found an online post from Roon suggesting Intel's NUC computer which is like a Mac Mini though smaller and runs Windows. After a bit of research Terrence chose the Intel NUC NUC5i5RYH with Intel Core i5 Processor and 2.5-Inch drive support for $372 on Amazon. He added a Transcend 64 GB SSD ($47), 8GB of Crucial RAM ($49) and an external 1TB NAS.
So not including the NAS, the entire system with touchscreen and computer and lifetime Roon license comes to $1,267. This compares very favorably with the Sooloos Control 15 which also includes the same components plus a larger internal drive and slot for ripping CDs for $7,500. To be fair, the Sooloos is a purpose built device that is much easier to set up and is more effortless in daily use, since it only does one thing: play your collection. And MQA is on the horizon. But still . . . Terrence added a Tidal subscription and a NAS to bring his total first year out of pocket to about $1,600. Just add DAC, amp and speakers and/or headphones.
As shown in the photo, the NUC comes with a VESA mounting bracket that can be attached to the rear of a compatible monitor such as the Acer. With the bracket in place, the NUC is easily removable and with a fresh install of Windows 7 Pro, Terrence and I find Roon is very snappy set up this way. The NUC’s embedded graphics (Intel HD Graphics 6000) seems to handle Roon well and all transitions and swipes are smooth, which was a problem on Terrence's inexpensive laptop.
Terrence notes that he opted for the larger NUC with the 2.5” driver support for future upgrades as SSD drive prices fall which will eventually allow an all-in-one package with no external drive or NAS. He also chose the small 64GB M.2 card which is sufficient for the OS as well as the Roon app and database. One concern he noted with the NUC is fan sound which is reported to be pretty whiny when the PC is under load, though it hasn't been a problem yet running Roon. Fan-less enclosures for the NUCs are also available.
Once set up, Terrence and I both love this Acer screen/NUC combo, since it can fold down to almost flat on the table or sit up straight with a slight tug. Drawbacks include a reflective glossy screen that shows fingerprints and a sensitive power button at the bottom right side that can be easily hit by mistake. The Acer display also includes internal speakers which can be configured as the system speakers for OS sounds.
Also, at this point, Roon is dependent on the OS’s on-screen keyboard, so a wireless keyboard nearby is helpful. I am assuming that Roon will eventually add an on-screen keyboard that functions similar to the handy one currently included with Sooloos. You need to be fairly precise with your finger on the Acer for some of the secondary functions, but overall both Terrence and I find the experience fluid and satisfying.
Terrence also did some clever routing to set up a digital EQ for when he needs to reduce the bass in his system (to keep his commercial neighbors downstairs happy during the day). At first he tried routing one of the zones through JRiver, which didn't quite work, but then found the free Voicemeeter Virtual Audio Mixer which creates a virtual audio device in Windows that serves as the output for a second Roon Zone that he named "Living Room - No Bass". He uses Equalizer APO (a parametric equalizer) installed on the virtual audio device, configured using a tool called Room EQ Wizard, which can do some pretty detailed EQ work to flatten out a whole room.
Finally, Terrence set up his older Nexus 10 Android tablet with the Roon Remote app (beta), which works seamlessly and includes a surprisingly complete feature set. Hopefully the iOS version will work this well. His takeaway after getting his system settled: "I've had in my mind what I've wanted all these years and it turns out I was waiting for Roon."
One more note: as I was finishing up this review, Meridian announced that they were going to make an "enhanced" version of their Sooloos software available for free to run on a system similar to what Terrence had just set up. The catch is you'll probably still need to buy a Meridian "Core" in some form to get it to output a digital stream. They also announced that the Control 15 is now gone. Interesting!
Go To Your Roon
Roon is a tour de force of programming, design and metadata mining, clearly built upon the Sooloos Way, which at its very core understands human behavior and how we relate to music. In the end, Roon is like a hyperactive and informed musical tour guide, pointing out interesting tidbits before moving you on to the next attraction. It's endlessly entertaining.
I suppose in this over-apped world we live in, it's easy to take good software for granted, but a couple of months with Roon and I still marvel at how it works.
If you are starting out with your first computer audio system, start here and don't look back. If you are already entrenched somewhere and take your music seriously, give this a spin. I've still got my Sooloos up and running and it satisfies me for now, but am watching Roon like a hawk. If I were starting today, there is no doubt this would be my first choice both price- and feature-wise.
Music lovers and audiophiles are lucky to have this, right here, right now. Check it out.
Apple MacBook Pro computer (2.66 GHz Intel Core 2 Duo/8GB RAM/512GB SSD) running OS 10.10.3, Roon, Audirvana Plus, JRiver, iTunes, Amarra Computer Music Player, Songbird, VLC, Reaper, XLD.
Also used in this review to check compatibility: Apple Mac Mini, Sony laptop running Windows 7, Intel NUC (detailed in the review), Android tablet.
Western Digital NAS Device 2TB
Oppo BDP-103 Universal player
Meridian Digital Media System (formerly Sooloos) (Control 15, QNAP TS-669 Pro NAS)
Apple iPad Air
Apple iPod Touch 1G
Apple iPhone 6
Benchmark DAC1 USB
Benchmark DAC2 HGC
Chord Hugo TT (review pending)
AudioQuest Dragonfly USB DAC
Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS
Marantz AV7005 in Pure Direct Mode
Classe CAM 350 monoblocks (2)
MartinLogan BalancedForce 212 subwoofers (2)
Emotiva 5s (desktop and recording monitoring system)
Velodyne Servo-F Series subwoofer (desktop and recording monitoring system)
AudioQuest Victoria (for Dragonfly)
AudioQuest Diamond USB
AudioQuest HD6 Carbon SPDIF (connecting studio to main listening room)
Cardas Clear USB
Cardas Neutral Reference S/PDIF
Kimber Kable BiFocal XL speaker
Kimber Kable various line level
XLO HT Pro line level
Dedicated 40A line for the amplifiers, separate dedicated 15A lines to the digital and analog components.